Drowning by Numbers (1988)

Drowning by Numbers (1988)

Peter Greenaway plays with structure and numbers in this surreal, quirky crime comedy



Netherlands, United Kingdom
Comedy, Crime
Arthur Spreckley, Bernard Hill, Bryan Pringle
119 min


I spy with my little eye…

What it's about

Three generations of women, all named Cissie Colpitts, all share the same marriage woes, and they all enlist the help of the lonely coroner Henry Madgett to help solve this issue, much to Madgett’s chagrin.

The take

Murdering your spouse is bad, so it’s slightly bizarre how Drowning by Numbers has an unbothered, even amused, attitude towards its murders. Moments seem randomly placed, like the first scene of a girl jumping rope while listing the stars by name, and the film can be hard to follow, even if the production design and cinematography keep you drawn in. But as the film progresses, and Madgett’s son Smut enumerates the fictional games as if he was a historian of sorts, writer-director Peter Greenaway meticulously crafts a quirky, twisty crime comedy, where, like children’s games and the men in their lives, the murdering wives do what they do because they can get away with it. Drowning by Numbers cleverly plays with the way we treat folklore, structure, and rules, even down to the very medium Greenaway works with.

What stands out

Halfway through, viewers would probably be noticing that numbers, in sequence, appear either through the dialogue and in the background through address posts, drawings, and items that would naturally be within the maximalist, almost cluttered scenes. It’s a fun game to spot them, but it also makes the viewer pay close attention and appreciate the excellent production design (or, encourage the viewer to watch again, just to see if they can find the numbers the next time).


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